The dispute over the passports of new deputy ministers has revived controversy over nationality, writes Chris Yeung
Flash back to April 5, 1990. The South China Morning Post carried a front page story on Donald Tsang Yam-kuen giving details of an 800-point scheme for Hongkongers to apply for full British passports. Mr Tsang was then a senior civil servant assigned to formulate the so-called British nationality scheme, aimed at stemming brain drain as the city was plunged into a crisis of confidence after tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.
Fast forward 18 years and Mr Tsang, who became the chief executive in 2005, finds himself at the centre of another controversy over nationality. This time, it boils down to the question of whether a group of eight deputy ministers and nine political assistants should all be Chinese nationals with no foreign passports or right of abode abroad.
Defending the decision not to require the appointees to renounce their foreign nationality, Mr Tsang said recently that the government had stuck to two principles: using people on the basis of their talent and following the law. The fact that some undersecretaries held right of abode overseas merely reflected the the community and its pre-handover history. 'I believe the nationality issue will be resolved gradually as time goes by,' he said.
Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who was a deputy to Mr Tsang in handling the sensitive issue in 1990, thinks differently. 'Even though they are not required by law to do so [renounce their foreign nationality], it would reflect much better on their commitment and loyalty to our country and Hong Kong if they did so before they were appointed,' she said.
Differences between Mr Tsang and Ms Ip speak volumes for the profound changes that have taken place in the socio-political landscape 11 years after the city's reversion to Chinese sovereignty.
Under the scheme they helped formulate in 1990, tens of thousands of people - including two undersecretaries - have been given full British passports without having to live in Britain.
Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, who quit the corps of administrative officers to become the deputy minister in charge of constitutional and mainland affairs, has applied to relinquish his UK right of abode.
A far greater number of people - such as the undersecretary for commerce and economic development, Greg So Kam-leung, and Gabriel Leung, a deputy-designate to the health and food minister - have obtained citizenship in Canada, a more popular destination for Hong Kong migrants. Mr So renounced his Canadian citizenship about a week after the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal broke the story.
Professor Leung and two other undersecretaries-designate, Kitty Poon Kit, who held a US passport, and Julia Leung Fung-yee, who had acquired right of abode in Britain, had been non-committal as the controversy raged. Yesterday, the trio revealed separately their decisions to relinquish their foreign passports and rights of abode.
Meanwhile, the nine political assistants have also been asked to disclose whether they have foreign passports. Views are more diverse, however, on whether those who have one should abandon their foreign passport.
The number of Hong Kong Chinese holders of foreign passports living in the city is believed to be close to 1 million.
In view of the 1997 jitters, aggravated by the Tiananmen crackdown, Executive Council member Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who is president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said it was not surprising a number of undersecretaries-designate had obtained foreign passports.
'People who hold foreign passports hold a full range of political views: left, right and middle,' he said. 'Even among the democrats, some gave up their foreign citizenship only after they decided to contest direct elections.
'We should not simplify the issue of people's commitment to Hong Kong in terms of what passports they hold. Hong Kong is not a city comprised only of Chinese.
'There are a lot of foreign nationals in non-governmental organisations, statutory bodies, even political parties. Do politics have nothing to do with them? We should be mindful of the political ramifications if we widen the application of the Chinese-only rule to public service posts. Compared with the '80s and '90s, public opinion on the nationality issue seems to have changed. People hold higher expectations and attach more importance to the sense of national identity of people who take part in politics.'
Veteran politician and former National People's Congress delegate Allen Lee Peng-fei said he was sure Beijing would have rejected the appointments if it had been aware of the foreign nationality status of some undersecretaries. He said it was understandable Hongkongers were keen to obtain foreign passports before the handover for them to travel freely after 1997.
'Is it not true the SAR passport is a more convenient travel document nowadays? Those who are determined to go into politics should understand that people will not bother to listen to them if they still hold foreign citizenship.'
Mr Lee also said it was the societal trend. 'When universal suffrage [for all legislators] is introduced, no foreign nationals will be allowed,' he said.
Beijing has kept silent on the issue. Article 101 of the Basic Law says only Chinese citizens with no right of abode in any foreign countries may fill top posts. The positions stipulated are: 'secretaries and deputy secretaries of department, directors of bureaux, commissioners against corruption, directors of audits, commissioners of police, directors of immigration and commissioners of customs and excise'.
The irony of the latest row is that the Basic Law was promulgated on April 4, 1990 - the day the nationality package was unveiled.
The latest undersecretary posts, to be filled by people who will stand in for the principal officials in their absence, were created as a new layer of political appointees. The new posts are in addition to the first-tier appointees introduced under the so-called accountability system in 2002.
Following the British nationality scheme unveiled after the crackdown of June 4, 1989, the now-disbanded Basic Law drafting committee stipulated that no more than one-fifth of the total membership of the legislature could hold foreign nationality. As a result, only some functional constituency seats in Legco are open to foreign passport holders. Except for a few top posts, such as chief justice, foreign judges are allowed in the judiciary.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a former high-ranking official, said the commitment of undersecretaries, who were being groomed as future ministers, would be called into question if they kept their foreign passports. Mr Wong, who had worked on a wide range of portfolios including civil service policy and education before he retired last year, said the government's position on foreign nationality did not conform with Mr Tsang's avowed goal of promoting national education and sense of national identity.
'Nowadays, even applicants for civil service postings have to take a test on the Basic Law. It's difficult to argue deputy ministers could keep foreign passports,' Mr Wong said.
'Mr Tsang can still argue he has a strong case for being more accommodating to those people on the grounds that Hong Kong is an international city. So let's fight for your case and see if people agree and support you. But don't argue your case on reasons such as a right to privacy. It's ridiculous.'
Professor Lui Tai-lok of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's sociology department said the chief executive had misread public opinion.
'The government takes the view it will be fine as long as it does not violate the Basic Law,' Professor Lui said. 'Like the issue of heritage conservation, they are adamant they have followed the law. When public sentiment is against it they don't know how to put their case to the people.
'And when it comes to issues thathinge upon allegiance, it has laid bare Mr Tsang's relationship with the pro-establishment camp, particularly the pro-Beijing groups.'
Professor Lui said pro-Beijing figures had backed the government over its decision not to require the relevant undersecretaries to relinquish their foreign nationality. But they also stressed the need for a sense of commitment among appointees, he said.
'They won't walk an extra mile to help the government fight the public opinion battle ... After all, they do not see Mr Tsang as a symbol of political loyalty [because of his role in the colonial government]. The media and the opposition will take the opportunity to attack the government.'
Professor Lui said he supported a more lenient approach to the issue of foreign nationality.
'I may accept a higher political standard for these appointees under a mature democratic system when the chief executive, elected by universal suffrage, forms his or her cabinet. Politics will become kind of a lifelong career by then,' he said.
'Before that happens, this is just a job for the appointees. They are not promised anything after their appointment ends four years later. Those who are under pressure to give up their foreign passports have my sympathy.'